When stars put on their no-make-up, serious faces to play characters with mental illness you can’t help getting a bit cynical. They might as well tattoo ‘Nominate me for Best Actor, pretty please,’ on their foreheads.
In David O Russell’s new comedy, two of Hollywood’s new favourite actors, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (he’s the alpha-guy in The Hangover, she’s devil-tough Katniss in The Hunger Games) have recently suffered breakdowns. Oh, and they bond via the medium of modern dance. Sounds like a textbook case of actors rattling the worthy tin for prizes? Funnily enough, not this time. The Silver Linings Playbook zips along on its off-beat energy and fast-paced wisecracking script. It’s undemanding, but funny, honest even, about mental health without being patronising (most of the time) and best of all, it’s brilliantly acted.
After a nasty incident involving his ex-wife’s lover and a bi-polar diagnosis, Pat Solitano (Cooper) has spent eight months on a psychiatric ward. Back at home living with his folks, he’s convinced that his ex is waiting for him to get better (in spite of that restraining order). In Pat’s house American football is a religion. His dad (Robert DeNiro, gilding the lily) is an illegal bookie who’s borderline obsessive and has anger issues. Pat’s long-suffering mum (played by the incredible Jacki Weaver – watch her in little-seen Aussie gem Animal Kingdom) holds the family together with her warmth and homebaking.
This world isn’t a million miles from Russell’s last film, The Fighter – ordinary America. And the Solitano household reminded me of that old line about home being the only place where they have to take you in. Anyone who’s lived with someone with mental illness will recognise this dysfunctional bunch – how much weirdness a family will live with and swallow (‘Oh, that’s just dad, don’t mess his remote controls’).
When Pat meets Tiffany (Lawrence) and discovers that she’s friends with his ex-wife, he agrees to be her dance partner in a local talent competition – if she passes a note to his ex. In an oddly touching scene, the pair bond over prescription drugs (‘they just take the light out of your eyes, don’t they’). Tiffany has problems of her own. Since her husband’s death she has become a sex addict. Yes, that sounds phony – it’s one of a few bum notes (another is an unfunny Indian psychiatrist). But Pat and Tiffany’s love/hate relationship is a treat to watch – all sparring banter, loose-lipped and without boundaries. The acting is sparky and intelligent, with Cooper proving there’s more to him than flashy good looks. As for Lawrence, she acts every role like there’s a soulful storm raging inside of her. If awards glory comes the way of this pair, it will be deserved.